Seven days before a Vancouver teen died of starvation late last year, Washington child welfare authorities received a report from the boy’s aunt who alleged that her sister was withholding food from her children and that the boy was a “walking skeleton.”
The report prompted a state worker to visit the home of Felicia Adams, 52, and Jesse Franks, 56, the following day to check on Karreon Walker-Franks and his two younger brothers.
Karreon apparently remained in Adams’ care even after one of his brothers confided to the state worker that on the same day as the home visit he saw their mother strike Karreon with a cane, punishment he said she had doled out before because the boy had vomited.
Within a week, 15-year-old Karreon was dead. He weighed about 65 pounds.
Court records allege that Adams routinely refused to feed the boy and ordered his teachers not to give him food. He only sporadically attended online classes, according to a search warrant affidavit filed in Clark County Superior Court. It is unclear from the court records what role Frank played in Karreon’s care.
Focus of investigation
Karreon was autistic, developmentally disabled, incontinent, nonverbal and partially blind, according to the affidavit.
Court documents show that the isolation of the coronavirus pandemic and closure of his school as a result likely compounded the circumstances that led to Karreon’s death.
Adams, also known as Felicia Adams-Franks, adopted the boy and his two younger brothers in 2012. She is their aunt.
She is now the subject of a Vancouver police investigation into Karreon’s death.
Vancouver police spokeswoman Kim Kapp said no arrests have been made in the case. Kapp said the other boys in Adams’ care were removed by state officials one day after their oldest brother’s death. They are now 13 and 15.
The warrant sought Adams’ financial records, which show she lost tens of thousands of dollars at the nearby ilani casino along Interstate 5 over the last four years. She was seen there hours after Karreon’s death.
The search warrant affidavit, signed by Vancouver Detective Zachary Ripp, details the grim circumstances of Karreon’s life and death.
Funeral home notified police
On Nov. 27, Adams brought the boy to the emergency room at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, where he was pronounced dead 14 minutes later. Pneumonia was listed as his cause of death.
It wasn’t until the teen’s body was transferred to Evergreen Memorial Gardens, a Vancouver funeral home, that police were notified of the potentially suspicious circumstances of his death.
The funeral home staff reported “concerns with Karreon’s appearance,” the court records said.
The Clark County Medical Examiner’s Office responded and conducted an autopsy, which revealed abnormal bone and hair growth and lesions most likely caused by starvation, Ripp’s affidavit says.
Child welfare records, which are detailed in the affidavit, show that in 2017 the state received two reports regarding Adams’ restriction of food for the children. The affidavit doesn’t indicate who made the reports.
Then in the days before Karreon’s death, Adams’ sister, Letricia Brown, told child welfare authorities that Adams “had been withholding food from the boys for years and that they have to steal food when they can,” Ripp’s affidavit notes.
In that same interview, Brown told authorities that Karreon collapsed from malnourishment. She told officials that Adams had removed doorknobs from one bedroom to ensure the children could not leave.
Kaytena Gonzalez, a child welfare worker, interviewed the younger brothers at the family’s home in the Mountain View area of Vancouver. She saw Karreon but did not “interact” with him because he could not communicate verbally, according to the account detailed in the court records.
The children reported then that they were spanked. One said the spankings were with his pants down and “with various objects.” He said a paddle was used “until it broke and then his parents used an extension cord.” The beating with the cord, he said, made him bleed.
Nancy Gutierrez, a spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Children, Youth and Families, declined to comment on what action, if any, the agency took after the home visit, citing privacy rules.
After the teen’s death, Vancouver police interviewed his high school and middle school teachers as part of their investigation.
Karreon attended Mountain View High School, where one of his teachers, Sayra Bann, told police investigators that the boy regularly attended school and was thin. She said he was “very food motivated” and ate whatever he was given. She said he binged until he vomited and “would eat the vomit.”
She told police that Karreon was incontinent and that his parents insisted that he have only one diaper a day. She said the teen came to school soiled and dirty.
Once the pandemic shuttered in-person schooling, school staff tried working with the teen’s family to get him engaged in online schooling. The family, the court record says, declined.
One month before his death, staff offered to arrange in-person school at the family’s home. Court records say Adams refused.
The teen’s middle school teacher, Cameron Brothers, said he was a sweet and active boy who loved to run and play tag and could throw a basketball “halfway across the gym.”
Brothers said the boy often came to school in dirty clothing and that the youth’s parents didn’t want him to eat at school but staff fed him when other children were eating.
The teacher told police “he remembered a time when Karreon came to school crying and starving.” He asked one of the boy’s brothers about what was going on at home and the brother said they had gotten into the refrigerator “when they weren’t supposed to” and as a result, they were deprived of food for the rest of the weekend.
When a middle school counselor followed up with Adams, she said “it was their business how they utilize discipline,” according to the court record.
One of the last teachers to see the boy was Amanda Toma, his homeroom teacher at Mountain View.
Toma last saw the boy in person in March 2020 when he appeared to have “good muscle tone.” She estimated that he weighed between 115 and 120 pounds.
Toma said Adams “was not receptive” to online learning for Karreon so his attendance was poor.
The teacher said she last saw him in a virtual meeting on Nov. 20, about a week before he died.
He looked “very still and zoned out” and Toma “noticed his cheekbones were sticking out,” the affidavit says.
The court records do not make clear whether any of the teen’s teachers reported their concerns about the teen’s welfare to authorities.
Adams could not be reached for comment. The boys’ biological mother, Carlisa Washington, also could not be reached.
Big losses at casino
Ripp filed the affidavit in support of a search warrant for Adams’ bank records.
According to the court documents, Adams received $4,300 a month from the government to care for the three children.
She also received a salary working for the health care nonprofit CareOregon.
The police investigation found that Adams and her husband have spent hundreds of hours gambling at ilani casino since 2017.
According to Cowlitz Tribal Law Enforcement records that were turned over the Vancouver police, Adams had spent 1,261 hours at the casino and “had a lifetime loss” of $238,098.
Franks, meanwhile, spent 977 hours at the casino and has lifetime loss of $43,078.
On the day Karreon died, his mother spent more than four hours playing slots, casino records provided to police show.
“The casino made $421.68 that day on Felicia Adams,” Ripp notes in the affidavit.
Surveillance cameras show Franks and Adams arrived at the casino three hours after Karreon died.